> Open Source Fine Art: infinities of meaning for an age of finite means



Mary Anne Francis

Unfinished business from Open Congress at Tate Britain, 2005

This text develops an enquiry that I started at Open Congress, but for reasons of time was left in limbo, with the questions that I wanted to put to the event’s participants unanswered. The discussion related to a question that was key for the Congress: the question ‘how does Open Source (trans)port to Art?’ (1)

Various approaches to this question were pursued, which are documented and elaborated elsewhere in this volume. Mine entailed inviting Congress attendees – better called ‘participants’ – to ‘Open Source’ a work of art that I had produced, ‘The Blooming Commons’ – a simulated flower stall, bricolaged from brightly coloured cleaning implements; pot scourers, feather dusters, sink plungers and the like. In offering this contribution, I wanted, as an artist, to put the theory into practice; to research through practical engagement. This was more compelling since although I knew that the structure of the Tate event was realised as it was (as a Congress, rather than a ‘conference’) in order to encourage the enactment of Open Source in many ways, this would, nevertheless, tend towards reflection on art and Open Source, rather than embodiments of that conjunction. Furthermore, the frisson – or abrasion - of Open Source and art-in-practice was intensified by being staged at the Tate with its history of very different processes of cultural production.

In my presentation, I briefed the work’s potential open-sourcers on the terms of their engagement with the work, issued as it was with a Creative Commons Licence (2.5). I also spoke about my hunch concerning the application of the idea of Open Source to art, indicating that I thought that art presented an exceptional case, compared to other cultural forms. And I hinted at the terms of art’s difference, depending as it did, it seemed to me, on how our experience of a work of art is of a ‘first order object’, rather than a second order one, or ‘copy’, as it is with other forms of culture.

Participants took up the challenge with aplomb – see the Open Congress Gallery although, regrettably, I have no photographic record of the most provocative example. (2) I had asked for a second ‘feedback’ slot, but owing to the number of people wanting to present to the Congress, this did not materialise. And so I didn’t get to find out how the 'Open Sourcers' understood their work, relative to Open Sourcing other cultural forms, music, for example. For as I’d hoped, their work upon ‘The Blooming Commons’ was material, with the piece being physically reconfigured at various points around the Tate. No-one took up the offer to work upon the work by way of making copies of the original. But for want of opportunity to question my researchers, I didn’t know if they had registered the fact that their material intervention marked a crucial point of difference in an Open Source approach to art, distinct from other cultural forms. Nor was I able to determine whether, like me, they then regarded this distinction as hugely exciting in its implications. For in the distance, I saw the possibility of troping the emancipatory and empowering politics of Open Source with aspects of an ‘environmental’ politics: one which recognises that the earth’s resources are at risk from the pursuit of Capital.

As a sort of substitute for that discussion, I am rounding out the hints that I offered in my presentation, and again, here, (and developed as a contribution ‘from the floor’ in Felix Stalder’s presentation). (3) Those fleshed-out hints comprise my first thesis - that the practical experiment was set up to confirm (or otherwise) via others’ observations. (4)

But this thesis is exciting not only as it sheds (new) light on the relationship of Art to Open Source production but also for the other theses – or proposals – that it in turn ushers in. This paper addresses those too.

Open Sourcing Art: an exceptional case

The question of how Open Source applies to art begs questions of what is understood by those terms, or entities. And contested though the meaning of the first is, at least in its more subtle aspects, (5) it is not nearly so contested as the latter, or subject to such tendentious definition.

Open Source: a means of (re)production

To quote from Wikipedia: ‘Open source […] relates to practices in the production of products which promote access to their sources’. (6) Or to put this more abstractly: Open Source is a means of production. Hence its potential relevance to art, which is, after all – despite Wikipedia’s welcome generality of reference to (just) ‘practices’ – not a common object for such practices. For the ‘practices’ of Open Source are typically, of course, software production. Construed as a means of production – as a method, even – Open Source is then usefully defined further as a set of conditions under which a given product / text is licensed; its legal framework. These conditions engage at once some aspects of the form in which that product / text is circulated and certain circumstances of its use – the way in which the entity proposed for ‘Open Sourcing’ may be re-produced. (Indeed, the concept of ‘reproduction’ is essential to Open Source. It is a process of production that occurs via reproduction; ‘reproducing’ in the sense of ‘making copies’ and in the ‘genetic’ sense of generating offspring – derivatives; ‘related differences’.)

‘The Open Source Definition’ versioned as a licence, or referred to law, is reprinted in this volume, and I refer you there, and especially to clause 3 because of the role it has in the following discussion. Meanwhile, a brief look at:


In the context of this discussion of how Open Source applies to art, I want to consider art in its ‘auratic’ state. Art which has an ‘aura’ is, of course, according to Walter Benjamin, and Robert Luxemburg, in the wake of Benjamin and stealing the aura of the former’s ‘Work of Art’ text, art with an ‘unique existence’. (7) By definition then, such art is neither ‘the work of art designed for [mechanical] reproducibility’ nor the ‘work of art designed for [digital] reproducibility’ because ‘[f]rom a digital text, for example, one can make any number of copies; to ask for the “authentic” copy makes no sense.’ (8) The media of ‘auratic’ art are rather those that shun the imprints of industrial and post-industrial machines (‘mechanised’ and ‘digital’ production respectively) and bear, instead, the mark of the hand (though ‘digital’ relates, ironically, to ‘finger’). In this scheme of things, ‘the hand’ of the artist is the guarantee of singularity: that which cannot be repeated (however much the art-market has mechanised its artists’ production). Hence the media include: paint, the techniques of traditional sculpture, for example. That other, more ‘post-hand’ (perhaps ‘post-human’ forms) – think of any Jeff Wall piece – can paradoxically acquire auratic status (notwithstanding Benjamin and Luxemburg) brings me to my next point:

Auratic art: its currency

In the context of this discussion of how Open Source applies to art, it may seem perverse to focus on this form of art when, as Luxemburg reminds us, ‘technical reproduction’ has ‘also captured a place of its own among the artistic processes’, (9) as it had, too, when Benjamin was writing, via lens based media in particular. But the very fact that ‘technically produced’ art habitually, if atavistically, acquires an aura, often via the fetishistic tactics of the art-market, is witness to a culturally dominant desire for that: the singular, the unique. In the face of mass-production elsewhere in society, art makes technical production its ‘exceptional’ media.

(To put this anecdotally, and especially, to witness this ‘desire’ in practice: in my role as a teacher, I am frequently frustrated by BA students’ wish to make unique objects. Their interest in mechanical and digital production by and large extends only to the way in which they serve the one-off artefact: the photographic exhibition or the video installation. This is in no way to slate them – and anyway, they know that auratic art has certain kinds of value beyond the economic: rather it is to see their likes and dislikes as symptomatic of a cultural attitude that they have been exposed to for twenty odd years and more.)

So: beyond the ascendance of iterative media – those media that readily allow non-singular production - in many spheres of cultural production at large and of late, ‘art’ is still, overwhelmingly defined by artisanal forms. Hence my address to those for the purposes of asking: ‘Open Source: Art’? (10)

Open Source to Art: a mode of resistance?

Translations are always political as much as they are also impossible, as Derrida reminds us, in the sense that the ‘bearing across’ as given by the term’s etymology is never perfect, always letting in a ‘difference’ which is the gap of (political) desire. (11) The ‘translation’ here, of Open Source to art, admits a further difference.

In the long process of researching and producing ‘Open Congress’ it is, with hindsight, clear that a somewhat abbreviated version of The ‘Open Source Definition’ tended to describe our approach to the area. (Well, perhaps I had better only speak for myself…) Inevitably maybe, this was one which concentrated on the word ‘free’ (respecting the nuances of meaning), and the way in which an Open Source approach to culture would enable ‘modifications and derived works’ for any artefact or text so nominated. (See clause 3 in ‘The Open Source Definition’). That an interest in the processes of Open Source focussed on this clause had to do, I think, with two related circumstances. The first concerns the role of ‘appropriation’ in aspects of Western culture. Hyperbolically describing every act of cultural borrowing as ‘plagiarism’ – in an inverted effort to make all re-usages of culture legal, or free from moral defect – Critical Art Ensemble reminds us that ‘Readymades, collage, found art or found text, intertexts, combines, detournment, and appropriation’ have an ancestry of sorts in ‘the English plagiarists’ who include in their illustrious number no less than Shakespeare. (12) They signal that swathes of Western culture are re-cycled (along with parts of other cultures, too, I might add). And as they propose, too, for reasons of technological invention, we now, more than ever, live in ‘the age of the recombinant’ – while many of the practices thus implicated are illegal.

So to the second circumstance of why I was interested in Open Source as realised by clause 3 of ‘The Open Source Definition’, enabling as it does ‘modifications and derived works’: it allows some works and certain uses of those works to circumvent restrictive copyright. Open Source can thus be seen in this way to ‘reconcile’ contemporary cultural practice with the law.

Yet despite the potential usefulness of Open Source in this way for art, the third clause is also highly problematic in the sense that it is difficult to realise for ‘auratic’ art. All of the other clauses (most of which are more peripheral) are more portable, although with clause 2, the question might be asked, pedantically, of how the program / source-code distinction translates to art. (That is to say: if ‘art’ can be seen as ‘the program’ that is offered for modification, then what is the ‘source-code’? What aspects of art’s code are presented, along with the finished work, to assist others’ adaptations of any given work?)

The usual, un-exceptional media of auratic art do not readily facilitate a work of art to be produced more than once. Thus the reason why unlike with other cultural forms, our experience of art is of a first-order text. Yes, as Benjamin asserts ‘[i]n principle a work of art has always been reproducible’ as ‘[m]an made artifacts could always be always imitated by men’, but this was – and still is – a thankless task. (13) Or to put it another way: the presence of terracotta copies of Greek statues, and of forgeries of Old Master paintings, did not for Benjamin, cause art’s aura to disperse, or ‘wither’, in his phrase. Even though a mould can be made or a tracing done, there is nothing of the same order as the drop down menu with its one click command to ‘copy’; nothing with the ease of execution, as it were, as ‘save as’. For Open Source software, the ease of making copies predicates the possibility of making modified versions of that software. This is a capacity that would benefit the artist too in modifying extant texts. But since auratic art does not readily allow copies – if at all – it militates against Open Source in this crucial aspect of the latter’s method.

Of course, it’s possible to argue that the skills required to modify an artwork (as likewise, with a piece of software) presume a fluency that should presume, as well, that starting from scratch would not be beyond that individual. And that the ‘openness’ that one-click copying enables is fatuous for those who do not have the skills to modify a given text – digital or otherwise.

But nevertheless… this may be quibbling when the new order of production that is the digital is centrally defined by a sort of reverse work ethic: that of indolence, or, to quote Steve Jobs, ‘minimal effort’. (14) Thus: in the face of digital production, the ‘paradigm shift’ that is Open Source, in Tim O’Reilly’s well-known application of Kuhn’s term, is resisted by auratic art. (15) Open Source does not transport to art, at least with respect to the issue of the ‘copy’. That this is so, makes art exceptional in the cultural realm. For all other cultural forms, bar one-off craft works (which may be regarded as a relative of art in this regard), readily enable iteration: cinema, performance, theatre, literature, and music (both digital and live). And as they do they also facilitate their own adaptations.

Art Open Sources ‘Open Source’: ‘reproduction’ as ‘remaking’ via unmaking

However, when the project ‘Open Source: Art’ is defined as one of interdisciplinary endeavour, in which an object from one discipline is not just submitted to the method of another but is encouraged to interrogate that method, in the figure of a ‘feedback loop’, then art may be permitted to query ‘Open Source’ – as it is currently defined. Or to put it in the very terms of Open Source, however paradoxically so using the method to unpick the method, art is allowed to Open Source the method Open Source: to modify and make derivations of that term.

For as I was preparing my contribution to the Congress – the presentation of my work ‘The Blooming Commons’ for the Congress’ participants to Open Source (presumably as I first thought, via being copied to begin with tedious though that would be) - it dawned on me that just because auratic art does not readily produce copies to be Open Sourced, the act of modifying any given artwork is not forestalled. Clause 3 can happen, or at least a part of it; as it provides for modified works. (The question of ‘derived works’ in the context of auratic art, when copying it is difficult, is ushered to one side by this discussion.) In the absence of a copy, an artwork can be modified semantically (as Open Source provides for in the idea of revision to a software code) by working on the artefact in its material dimension. This deviates from software practice where the ‘source code’ is left, materially, intact, somewhere on a hard drive or a server (though it doesn’t have to be, but is, because it’s useful, and, crucially, easy to do so). I realised that ‘The Blooming Commons’ could be modified without a copy being made as long as I was happy to ‘give-up’ the work itself. I was.

I hoped that those participating in the re-make of the work would appreciate this nuance, or that fact that in this way, art was an ‘exceptional’, an ‘unusual’ instance of the method that is Open Source. I wanted them to see that art so realised took exception to the usual understanding of the term, in playing it at its own game by Open Sourcing it. Or failing that, to usefully modify my insight. But more so, I was hoping that the work’s re-authors would further see the far-reaching implications of this turn.

The exceptional form of Open Source as the new paradigm

For while my original question to the area was to ask how Open Source enhanced creativity (expecting the debate would straddle issues of the value of the artefact produced by a unique artist over and above one collectively produced), this was speedily replaced by the question of the value of Open Source in its exceptional condition; in auratic art. For me, its value had to do with how it overhauls the regime of production in contemporary art. Precisely, it enables the replacement of a system of proliferating manufacture with one that recognises that resources may be finite and modes of production may have to respect for that, along with attention to sustainability. For rather than producing new material artefacts as vehicles for new meanings, ‘Open Source: (auratic) art’ enables the idea that we could instead re-turn old art for new signification(s). More radical than any notion of the ‘recombinant’ to date, (16) this ethic of material recycling allows us to conceptualise the possibility of art continuing - both practically and ethically – in an era of environmental crisis.

(Does the claim that there is an ethical or morally defensible dimension to this practice rebut the outcry that I hear? For the counter claim that re-cycling art is nothing short of barbarous is resonant. For sure, it would lead to a whole host of issues about curating ‘the tradition’. But then: I am not proposing that past art is ransacked for these purposes - although it could be: many an ‘old master’ has done that to another, and themselves… Rather, it’s a proposition for the future, and one that could be optional, if substantially weakened, in that form. And nor am I suggesting that practices could cross re-cycle, whereby a Rembrandt does service as an ironing board, as Duchamp’s proposal for an inverted readymade memorably envisages, although this too is logically an option.)

However, it is central to this argument to note that the idea of a practice of material recycling is relevant elsewhere: in principle, all artefact production could have its reservoir of molecules restricted. In this way, Open Source, in its exceptional condition proposes a revolution in the means of production that is at once suggested by, and counteractive of, the prevailing ethos of the practice in its ‘original’ condition. For while the role of Open Source in forestalling the ends of Capital is highly problematic (and as such much debated), one thing seems clear: inherent in its practice is a principle of proliferation, albeit largely digital and in the name of ‘the commons’. And in this, if in little else, it belongs to the growth economy of Capital.

Except, perhaps there is a fault at the heart of Open Source that elevates its aberrant (art) form to its best instance. If we ‘naturalise’ the term, and think of ‘source’ as say, a mine of raw materials, then the notion of a finite entity prevails. This is not to contend that natural resources are all finite, (in the shorter scheme of things, outside the idea of a finite universe, not all are). Rather, it is to remind us, that Open Source presumes a source can be plundered ceaselessly, thus ‘naturalising’ unlimited production. This presumption is doubtless unconscious and well-meaning. When the ‘source’ that is ‘Open’ regains a sense of limitation, art as the exceptional-as-unusual condition of Open Source production becomes, rather, the ‘exceptional’ condition as the term means ‘the best’, or unusually good. We ignore this at the peril of our future.


(1) In using the term ‘Open Source’ rather than ‘FLOSS’, I am not wanting to privilege ‘open’ over ‘free’ software. Rather, I use the term as it has tended to be used (rather loosely) to refer to the area of agreement between ‘Free’ and ‘Open Source’ software proponents – here, for reasons of the way it opens up the work of FLOSS for my argument via certain rhetorical manoeuvres the term permits.

(2) The details were relayed to me, verbally, by the protagonists: finding a little noticed outdoor sculpture in a recess to the left of the Tate Britain’s main flight of steps, the pair decided that the figure should be better clad around its midriff, so they added a feather duster to its fig leaf. Immediately, a security guard rushed out to remove the offending item. (The dictum that this story offers is that, in the absence of a public, art works are nevertheless, always being regarded.) As an instance of ‘Open Source: Art’ its merit is its cunning double reading - of two works of art at once.

(3) Note that, however, ‘Open Congress’ didn’t have a floor, or a podium, nor a ceiling, even. Well, at least conceptually, it sought a horizontal architecture, much as the Tate’s literal architecture in the form of the ‘top-down’ Clore Auditorium contested that by imposing an ‘active-speaker, passive-audience’ regime against the Congress’ dictum that ‘everyone is a participant’. The elaboration of my thesis was only made to a part of the Congress, and besides was a sort of footnote and did not elicit any response at the time.

(4) Using the model – or at least idea – of practice-based research in Fine Art.

(5) The Wikipedia entry charts the history of the term ‘Open Source’ and its entanglement with ‘Free Software’.


(7) See Walter Benjamin ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Illuminations (Pimlico, London: 1999) and Robert Luxemburg ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction’

(8) Robert Luxemburg ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction’ section IV

(9) See Robert Luxemburg ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction’ section I

(10) While the value of this move (Open source > Auratic Art) in definitional terms is clear, in as much as a category of practice is most typically construed, its value in strategic terms is less certain. Given that all modes of production are political, the benefit of bringing an ‘advanced’ technological practice (Open Source) to bear on one which uses technology very differently (Fine Art at large) is ambiguous. Why chose a ‘hard case’? Because, if it works, Open Source makes huge gains? Precisely, moving on to think about the ‘whys and wherefores’ of this subject (Open Source: Art) is to slip the term of this enquiry, which is simply to ask ‘how’.

(11) For the Derridean take on this, see, especially The Truth in Painting (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London: 1987), in which Derrida stages the difficulties of translating the ‘the truth in painting’ and yet contends: ‘[u]ntranslatable: this locution is not entirely so’; pp. 4-5.

(12) See ‘Utopian Plagiarism, Hypertextuality, and Electronic Cultural Production’, sections 4 and I, respectively.

(13) Walter Benjamin ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Illuminations p.212 (Pimlico, London: 1999)

(14) As quoted by Robert Luxemburg in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction’, section I.


(16) Critical Art Ensemble’s notion of the ‘recombinant’ pertains only to semantic production; the practice of ‘plagiarism’ however broadly conceived. See ‘Utopian Plagiarism, Hypertextuality, and Electronic Cultural Production’


First published March 2006 in Media Mutandis: Surveying Art, Technologies and Politics ed. Marina Vishmidt with Mary Anne Francis, Jo Walsh and Lewis Sykes (NODE.London)

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 England & Wales License.